Close Calls: Toledo Firefighter Falls into Basement

March 1, 2016
Scary moment brings back memories of losing two firefighters two years before this incident.

On Dec. 28, 2015, Toledo, OH, Firefighter Barrett Dorner turned out the way we all do for a dwelling fire. As we’ve read in this column for many years, your weeks, your months, your years or your decades of experience and training all play out when and if things go wrong. The reason we mention this is because it is so critical to practice, train and study your job each and every day. You never know when THAT run comes in. Every day is a training day.

The following is from Barrett Dorner of the Toledo (OH) Fire & Rescue Department (TFRD).

Sharing my story

I called a mayday. It was the second mayday I’ve heard on the job, and it was mine. The first was the voice of my classmate, Jamie Dickman, on Jan, 26, 2014. Sadly, that was the last time any of us heard Jamie’s voice. We lost him and Stephen Machcinski at that fire. (Editor’s note: Toledo firefighters Machcinski and Dickman were killed when they were caught in rapidly changing and deteriorating conditions while fighting that fire in a six-unit apartment building.) I share my account in the hope that you can take something, anything, away from this situation that will make you a better prepared firefighter.

A quiet day

I woke up for the 0600 tones, and after an amazingly run-less night on Medic 19, I excitedly rolled back over for another half hour of uninterrupted sleep. I was relieving at Engine 19’s company, the term we use for a two-piece, five-person crew here in Toledo (two-person BLS ambulance and a three-person engine). To get as much sleep as I did on this 24-hour shift was nothing short of a holiday miracle. I almost felt guilty that we were so slow—only one canceled regular alarm and two transports. 

Around 0605, my phone buzzed alive with an alert from the PulsePoint app. As soon as a fire is entered into the computer in dispatch, and before apparatus are assigned, it comes out over the app. A quick glance: “3425 Stickney Ave., Toledo.” 

For a second, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me, so I rolled back over. Engine 19 is on Stickney, right next to the Jeep plant. This was our fire. And with that thought, my brain clicked and I sprung out of bed, sprinting to the medic unit as the phone rang—the alert from dispatch, pre-station-tones—and Emily Montri called out “Structure!” over the station PA. With the exception of our lieutenant, the crew all came from the class of 2013. We’re all close and work together often. 

High level of suspicion 

I turned to my driver, Adam Bevier, and read off the rig-mounted computer that police were on scene, “so take a right turn and look for the blue lights.” We pulled past the one-and-a-half-story, early 1900s house, with light smoke drifting from the eaves, and landed our rig in the parking lot of an old KFC. I hopped out and threw on my SCBA, but my waist strap was tangled and I couldn’t quickly solve that puzzle, so I tightened my shoulder straps, grabbed the irons and headed for the door. I wasn’t going to fight with it and leave one guy on the nozzle by himself. 

As the engine pulled the line, I masked up and met Nick Smith at the enclosed porch. Our officer gave his arrival report, and specifically mentioned that there was a basement while giving his 360. As I threw my gloves on before I forced the door, I turned to Nick and said something along the lines of, “let’s consider this a basement fire until we know otherwise.” We tend to kill damn good fireman going in above fire without knowing it, so much so that it’s a frequent topic of discussion with my brother and several close friends on the job. As a department, we’ve gotten much better at avoiding this since Jan. 26, 2014. 

I forced the door, and the fire was clearly right in front of us. Stairs to the right, visibility perfect with flames illuminating the whole living room and into the dining room. My level of suspicion that this was a basement fire dropped upon seeing what appeared to be simply a couch or two burning in a living room. This fit, in my mind, as an isolated contents fire.

Nick knocked it down, I gave the benchmarks to command, then the line went limp. I asked for more pressure, not that there was any rush, but Nick later told me he didn’t want to advance without a fully charged line if we didn’t have to. Incredibly smart decision, especially with the basement fire considerations. 

The lieutenant of Engine 7 came in and asked to squeeze by to do a search. As we got water, the “search” stood out in my head as I noticed furniture and items on a coffee table meant someone was probably living here. Instead of walking the straight line to the back right corner of the room, I walked the Alpha (front) wall, turned at the Bravo (left-side) wall, clearing the area quickly and expecting to soon be slamming my Halligan into burned plaster to check for any hidden fire. Instead, I took a step and everything else peeled away. In my head, I pictured every other object, the floor, the furniture rapidly flying away from me, leaving me in a void of black air. As I fell, I felt like I could fall forever, like falling was somehow going to be the rest of my life. Irrationally, I was convinced I was going to. The landing brought me back to reality.

In the basement 

I landed on my back. I felt like I was almost sitting up, on a pile of debris—pieces of plaster, some mattress springs. I quickly looked around and thought to myself, “If there’s fire down here, I’m in trouble.” I whipped my head around and simultaneously grabbed my mic: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Firefighter through the hole in the floor, about 10 feet in from the front door. I’m in the basement. I am uninjured. There is no fire in the basement."

My crew heard the mayday and spotted my flashlight shining straight up out of the hole. I stood up and, to the best as I can recall, my eyes lined up with the floorboards. I’m 6’6”, so I was hoping it was a short basement so I could just grab something and get out. The hole was about 6 x 4, and there was only one floor joist remaining. Nick got on his stomach and tried to pull me up. I tried using my Halligan across the joist and the floor, grabbing both to try and pull myself up. I tried finding a piece of furniture in the basement to move and stand on to pop out. Another firefighter tried to get me to grab a pike pole, instead inadvertently hooking and pulling the hose leading to my mask-mounted regulator. That’s when those attempts stopped. I stressed to these guys that there was no hurry and to just bring me a “dinky”—Toledo’s quirky term for a folding ladder, usually used to get up in the attic. 

As Bevier returned with that, I looked to my left and saw two members of 7’s crew coming down the basement stairs. I honestly hadn’t really thought about stairs at that point. I didn’t see them when I looked around (they were behind me), and I decided to stay where people could see me to avoid any confusion or unnecessary added stress. If they see me standing, I thought, they know I’m OK. The crew from 7's led me up the stairs and out the Delta (right) side door. 

As I went to take my helmet off, I realized I didn’t have it. It fell off, despite my religious use of the chinstrap. I was directed to talk to our ALS ambulance crew, told them I was fine but also promised to let them know if that changed. Matt Brooks, another from the Class of ’13, and I chatted for a bit as I made sure nothing started to hurt. Ultimately, someone retrieved my helmet and I rejoined my crew, going back to work opening up the ceiling in the enclosed porch where some fire had hid from us.

After helping knock that down, Bevier and I took Medic 19 back to the station to switch out crews, as it was nearly 0700 and B shift was due to take our spots. “On the drive back, make sure you guys avoid that hole at Manhattan. You know, don’t fall in it,” my lieutenant quipped. 

This was the beginning of a long day of genuine concern and ball-busting, often in the same breath—coping mechanisms in full effect for a department that recently felt the full brunt of tragedy on the fireground. 

Back in quarters 

As we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, waiting for the rest of the crew to return to complete the mayday-related documentation, Bevier asked me if I heard about the line-of-duty death in Hamilton, OH. I caught a glimpse of it on my phone just before he asked me. Five hours before our tones dropped, Firefighter Patrick Wolterman fell through the first floor into a basement. He’s 28, I’m 27. He died, I was fine. A sobering thought as my heart hurt for Firefighter Wolterman, his family and friends, and his department. (Editor’s note: Wolterman died while attempting to search a house for possible victims in an arson/dwelling fire.)

In terms of what happened at the Stickney incident, as best we can piece together, there was carpet but no sub floor. I’m waiting to learn if they were burned out somehow, cut, or what the situation was. (Editor’s note: It was determined that the ignition location (undetermined cause) was a chair at the inside end of the hole. As the chair burned, the foams and plastics likely dripped onto the floor and ignited it from the top-down, creating the hole over an extended period of time. The debris Dorner landed on in the basement was the remnants of the chair and random building material.)

Note from Chief Goldfeder

Next month we’ll review the lessons learned from this incident, with comments from myself and Firefighter Dorner.

Our sincere thanks to Firefighter Barrett Dorner for sharing this account with us so that we can all learn from his experience. Additionally, thanks to Chief Luis Santiago, Chief of Department, Toledo Fire & Rescue, as well as Battalion Chief John Kaminski and all TFRD members for their support and assistance. 

Sidebar: About TFRD

The Toledo Fire & Rescue Department (TFRD) handles all fire and medical incidents, protecting just fewer than 300,000 citizens. All Toledo firefighters are state certified as Firefighter II and trained as EMT-B, with 190 also being certified as EMT-P.

Each year the Toledo Fire & Rescue Department responds to more than 50,000 calls for emergency service, including medical, fire, hazmat, water and confined space rescue, and homeland security.

The minimum daily staffing for the department’s 19 fire stations is 107 firefighters, which includes officers, such as lieutenants and captains. Each station has a captain assigned as the station commander/company commander, charged with the maintaining the condition of their station and all the apparatus and equipment stored within. Stations also have lieutenants assigned as company commanders whose responsibilities include command of one or more units and the members assigned during their tour of duty.

TFRD is divided into Battalions 1, 2 and 3. Each battalion is managed by a battalion chief, and one of these chiefs is assigned as the “senior” battalion chief, responsible for citywide staffing and activities.

The department operates with 18 engines, two rescue squads, three ladder trucks, nine BLS transport units (one part-time) and six ALS transport (paramedic) units (one part-time). In addition to day-to-day emergency response, TFRD also deploys several technical rescue teams: Hazardous Materials, Confined Space/Trench Rescue, Water Rescue, High-Angle Rope Rescue, along with a fire boat.

About the Author

Billy Goldfeder

BILLY GOLDFEDER, EFO, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, has been a firefighter since 1973 and a chief officer since 1982. He is deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, which is an ISO Class 1, CPSE and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous NFPA and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) committees. He is on the board of directors of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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